Cheltenham: Stayers Thursday

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Ruby Walsh wins two Opening Day, the sky’s the limit for the greatest of the greats. The steely eyes, the soft hands, the long legs that wrap instead of kick are back in all their glory. Un De Sceaux, Douvan and all the others still to come. How many will he win? How good is this?

Then, wham, how bad is this?

Two out in the RSA Chase, Al Boum Photo, drifting back after looming, falls. Willie Mullins has seen all the falls, he watches, looks routine, and turns his binoculars back to the race, thinking it isn’t that bad, routine, Ruby will be up, he’ll be up like that. Then just after Mullins turns his binoculars, Al Boum Photo rolls again, an awkward roll, motion and velocity taking over, too fast, Walsh too slow to slide out of the danger. The screens go up around Walsh.

Yeah, how bad is this?

Word comes around quickly, the greatest of the greats has broken his leg, again. He came back from a broken tibia Thursday, he’s out by Wednesday. Six days. Comrades in arms, all of us, in a sport that tames lions, takes no prisoners – all the clichés that come in love and pain – a pall comes over the day. Then it lessens as we hear it’s not that bad, hurt, out, but not that bad. We take that, a small win, or at least not as large a loss.

Mullins audibles, switching jockeys, booking jockeys, the chessboard has quickly become more complicated.

Paul Townend switches from Bleu Berry to Max Dynamite in the Coral Cup, you know the gods, Max Dynamite doesn’t jump, doesn’t travel, Bleu Berry wins with Mark Walsh, who minutes before was going for a cup of tea during the Coral Cup. Instead, he has a Festival winner. At the end of the day, Ruby’s sister, Katy, wins the bumper, leading a 1-2-3 for Mullins. She sheds tears. Can’t blame her.

In between all that, Altior guts it out to win the Queen Mother. The undefeated chaser struggles throughout the 2-mile spectacle, he doesn’t travel for a moment. Douvan, Walsh’s ride, now with Mullins’ son, Patrick, crashes out four out, spoiling the clash that was brewing. Turning into the stretch, Mullins’ Min cruises, looms. Altior still labors. Then in two strides, it goes from ‘How far is Altior going to get beat?’ to ‘How far is Altior going to win by?’ The jet plane lifts off, it’s over.

An epic performance by a horse who we knew is talented. Now we know he’s resolute as well.

For us, it’s all joy. For the trainer, Nicky Henderson, it’s different. He’s battled a wind issue with Altior earlier in the season and a sore foot earlier this week. He’s walked the line.

“We’ve been lucky enough to be down this road many times and it’s 90 percent relief and 10 percent joy,” Henderson said. “To watch the horse do that, well, he was electric. In behind he wasn’t doing that much, but getting lots of cover and getting a very cool ride. For a second he looked in trouble and I thought, ‘This isn’t going to happen,’ but as soon as he saw daylight he knew where he was going.”

So did we.

As for today…

First Race. 1:30. JLT Novices’ Chase. Grade 1. £150,000. 2 miles, 3 furlongs.

Today’s best, Mullins, Henderson and Gordon Elliott square off. Mullins unleashed Invitation Only and Kemboy, Henderson launches Terrefort, winner of his only two starts in England and Elliott counters with the mares, Shattered Love, she’s won her last two. Doubt any of them at your peril.

The Picks: Invitation Only, Terrefort, Snow Falcon.


Second Race. Pertemps Network Final Handicap Hurdle. Grade 3. £100,000. 2 miles, 7 furlongs, 213 yards.

Twenty-four runners in a deep and confounding handicap. I’ll go for a Guinness.

The Picks: Delta Work, Louis’ Vac Pouch, Glenloe.


Third Race. 2:50. Ryanair Chase. Grade 1. £350,000. 2 miles, 4 furlongs, 166 yards.

Remember Un De Sceaux’s leap last year to win this race? The only thing missing was the jet stream. Awesome, free-running, bunny-hopping horse who has learned to temper his exuberance and become a mainstay in National Hunt racing. He’s won 20 races. Yes, 20 races. Of course, Cue Card has been a mainstay for longer, the 12-year-old will bring the house down if he could turn back the clock one last time. Great race.

The Picks: Un De Sceaux, Cloudy Dream, Cue Card.


Fourth Race. 3:30. Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle. Grade 1. £325,000. 2 miles, 7 furlongs, 213 yards.

A revelation this season, Sam Spinner should win the feature for Jedd O’Keeffe and Joe Colliver. The New One, a 20-time winner, opts for 3 miles. Lil Rockerfeller represents the Pennsylvania breeding program.

The Picks: Sam Spinner, Supasundae, Unowhatimeanharry.


Fifth Race. 4:10. Brown Advisory & Merriebelle Stable Plate Handicap Chase. Grade 3. £110,000. 2 miles, 4 furlongs, 166 yards.

My old friend Tully East. I gave up on my old friend Tiger Roll (inexplicably, agreed), but won’t do that again. Tully East loves the place and Last Goodbye, with our old friend Sean Flanagan, stayed well last year. Box them.

The Picks: Tully East, Last Goodbye, Guitar Pete.


Sixth Race. 4:50. Trull House Stud Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle. Grade 2. £90,000. 2 miles, 179 yards.

Strange to see a mares’ novice hurdle at Cheltenham. Hard to look past Willie Mullins’ Laurina.

The Picks: Laurina, Countister, Pietralunga.


Seventh Race. 5:30. Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase. £70,000. 3 miles, 2 furlongs.

Dear old Pendra deserves a win, he nearly pulled it off last year, lugging 166 pounds and getting nailed late. He’s back, without a race in between, same weight. I’ve always loved Aubusson, he should relish the ground and give the Williams family another Cheltenham thrill.

The Picks: Aubusson, Sugar Baron, Squouateur.